Zheng Yi (also Cheng I, Ching Yih, Cheng Yao-I, Cheng Wen-Hsien, or Cheng Yud) was a Chinese pirate who lived from 1765 to 1807. Operating in the South China Sea, Zheng Yi famously led a 600-ship pirate confederation. This force of more than 40,000 men was divided into six fleets and it terrorized merchant ships of all nationalities travelling between Hong Kong and Malaysia.
Zheng Yi's personal fleet was the Red Flag Fleet, so-called because each ship flew a flag of that colour to distinguish it from other ships in the pirate confederation that flew flags of another colour. Looting cargoes of gold, silver, silk and spices, Zheng Yi's pirates also attacked coastal towns and villages and demanded protection money. Following Zheng Yi's death in 1807, the pirate confederation was successfully taken over by his widow, Zheng Yi Sao (aka Ching Shih).
Zheng Yi came from a long line of pirates and so he fully appreciated the risks and opportunities of taking merchant ships on the High Seas from a young age. He seems also to have participated in wars involving rebels in Vietnam. In some European documents, he is described as a hunchback.
Returning to China in 1801, Zheng Yi selected Kwangtung Province as his base. He operated in the South China Sea from Vietnam to Hong Kong, taking advantage of the busy shipping routes from China to Vietnam and back again, as well as ships on the China-to-Malaysia trade routes. By 1802, Zheng Yi had established himself as the pirate chief in this area, a position formerly held by his cousin (or uncle) Cheng Chi (1760-1802). Targets ranged from small local fishing vessels to intercontinental merchant ships. The latter class of ships carried gold and silver as well as valuable cargoes like rolls of silk, spices, Chinese porcelain, cotton, and tea. The pirates made such frequent attacks on ships in the Canton area (modern Guangzhou) and around the small islands that dotted the Canton River Delta that European sailors called the area and the people who haunted it the Ladrones (meaning thieves or brigands). When the pirates could not find sufficient provisions on the ships they captured, they attacked and looted coastal villages.
The captured cargoes were sold on to merchants eager to get their hands on discounted goods while corrupt officials were given bribes to turn a blind eye to the illicit trade. Zheng Yi had no qualms about taking European vessels that were not too heavily armed. Their cargoes were just as valuable, and there was the added bonus of being able to ransom the crews. Although Chinese seamen were frequently tortured when captured to reveal where their valuables were hidden, or simply on a sadistic whim, there are no records of Europeans being treated in this way by Chinese pirates.
One European mariner, John Turner, was captured by Zheng Yi's pirates in 1806. Turner was the chief mate on the Tay, and he was held captive in terrible conditions for five months until a ransom was paid. He describes in one passage how a captured officer of the Chinese imperial navy had his feet nailed to the deck before he was beaten with a rattan cane, taken ashore, and dismembered. Not for nothing did Turner title his memoirs as the Sufferings of John Turner, Chief Mate of the Country Ship Tay Bound for China and Captivity Among the Ladrones, published in 1809. In another passage, Turner describes another brutal killing:
A man was here put to death with circumstances of peculiar horror. Being fixed upright, his bowels were cut open, and his heart was cut out, which they afterwards soaked in spirits and ate. Mr Turner did not witness this bloody execution, but he was shown the mangled body. He also understood that this shocking treatment is frequently experienced by those, who, after offending the Ladrones, should ever be so unfortunate as to be in their power afterwards.
The Pirate Confederation
After a long run of successes, Zheng Yi became the head of a confederation of six Asian pirate leaders around 1805. Each leader of the confederation operated independently, but they all agreed not to target the same waters or squabble over the prizes taken.
Pirates have used flags since antiquity such as the black flag to show they are criminals of the high seas, a red flag to indicate no quarter would be given, or the Jolly Roger with various gruesome symbols to strike fear into the hearts of their victims. Maritime flags are also very useful for other kinds of communication, of course, and Zheng Yi used coloured flags to coordinate the activities of his alliance of six pirate fleets. Each fleet commander ensured that each of his own ships flew a specific triangular or square coloured flag. The colours employed were red, black, white, green, blue, and yellow.
The 200-plus ships of Zheng Yi's personal command all flew a red flag and so were known as the Red Flag Fleet. The White Flag Fleet was led by Liang Pao who also had experience fighting for the rebel forces in Vietnam. Due to its small size, this fleet usually sailed in consort with the Red Flag Fleet. The 100-ship Black Flag Fleet was commanded by the notorious pirate Kuo P'o-Tai (aka Kuo Hsüeh-hsien), a protege of Zheng Yi's, who was such a lover of literature that his flagship always carried an impressive library. The Green Flag Fleet was led by Li Shang-Ch'ing (aka Li Hsiang Ch'ing) who was nicknamed "Son of a Frog" or Hsia Mo-Yang. The Yellow Flag Fleet was commanded by Tung Hai Pa (aka Wu Chih-ch'ing). The green and yellow fleets were also small and so both often sailed in consort with the Blue Flag Fleet led by Wu-shih Erh (aka Mai Yu-chin, d. 1810) which was, with over 160 ships, the second largest in the confederation.
The commanders operated in previously agreed lanes so as not to get in each other's way and the coloured flags were particularly useful when sailing at the edges of these zones or when target vessels were being pursued through two or more zones. When a pirate ship came across another ship flying the agreed colour flag for that area, the captain knew it was a fellow member of the confederation and so did not attack it or interfere with an ongoing pursuit.
The various fleets had their own bases, chosen by their respective commanders where they had long-established ties. Most bases were in secluded bays and islands, although the pirates were so numerous they surely had little to fear from any authorities, Chinese or otherwise. Indeed, the pirates frequently attacked not only entire villages but also fortresses, overwhelming them with sheer numbers and making off with their cannons for use in future naval engagements.
Zheng Yi's Red Flag Fleet
Zheng Yi's personal fleet was massive and the majority of his 200-plus ships were junks. These were large vessels that could carry up to 800 tons of cargo and as many as 40 cannons. Junks were excellent ocean-going sailing ships with a flat bottom and a very high stern; their rudder could be raised which allowed them to enter shallow waters other large ships could not. Junks typically had two or three masts carrying distinctive bamboo or rattan sails with four unequal sides. A large junk was about 80 feet long (24.4 m) with a beam of 18 feet (5.5 m). The bigger junks could also carry longboats to transport up to 20 men for stealth attacks. Zheng Yi's ships were crewed by at least 20,000 mariners, and the total men under Zheng Yi's command may have been as high as 40,000.
One very special crew member of Zheng Yi's was Chang Pao (aka Cheung Po Tsai, c. 1786-1822), a son of a fisherman who was captured by the pirates around 1801. Zheng Yi made Chang Pao a captain of one of his Red Flag ships, and the young man became both his lover and adopted son. Homosexual relations, particularly between senior and junior pirates, were not uncommon. A study of Chinese trial records between 1796 and 1800 reveals 50 known cases of same-sex relations amongst Chinese pirates. As the historian D. Cordingly notes:
When pirate gangs needed new recruits, it was not unusual to take captives and force them to join the pirate community by means of sexual assaults…[consequently] it is difficult to know to what extent homosexuality was willingly practised between the participants, and to what extent it was forced on captives by pirate leaders.
1801 was the same year that Zheng Yi married a former Cantonese prostitute, Zheng Yi Sao (aka Cheng I Sao, Ching Yih Saou, or Ching Shih). Mrs Cheng, as she is sometimes called, would make her own distinctive contribution to Asian pirate history after her husband's death.
With such a fleet at his command, no ship was safe in the South China Sea, and Zheng Yi's power and reach increased even further. The pirate leader's fleet kept growing and eventually reached over 800 junks at the time of his demise or shortly after. Such was Zheng Yi's control over these waters that he was no longer obliged to actually attack merchant vessels, only intimidate them with a potential attack. Very few captains were reckless enough to sail the South China Seas without the precaution of paying Zheng Yi and his associates protection money. Piracy was so rife that trade was badly disrupted, and many cities could not get the supplies they needed to feed their populations. Even Portuguese Macao was blockaded in 1804, and only the arrival of four heavily-armed Portuguese warships saw the pirates beat a retreat to easier targets.
Death & Zheng Yi Sao
A greater presence of the British Royal Navy in Asian waters began to challenge the pirate confederation. Further, the Chinese government, eager to avoid a European naval force merely replace the pirates as controllers of the South China Sea, began to take a more active role in repressing piracy. A force of 80 ships commanded by a Chinese general was sent to hunt down Zheng Yi and his men. The pirate's bases dotted around Kuang-chou Bay (near modern Guangzhou) were hit hard in September 1805, but if the authorities had hoped for a knock-out blow, they were sorely disappointed. Zheng Yi lost only 26 ships in the raid. Changing strategy, the Chinese offered a carrot instead of a stick and promised that any pirate who gave themselves up would receive a pardon. Around 3,000 men took up the offer over the next three months. As it happened, fate would intervene and bring Zheng Yi's reign of terror to an end.
In November 1807, Zheng Yi was killed at sea. There are two versions of the pirate's death. One is that he was swept overboard during a typhoon, the other that he was killed fighting in Vietnam. The death of their leader did not put an end to the pirates of the Red Flag Fleet or the confederation as Zheng Yi was replaced by no less a figure than his own wife, Zheng Yi Sao. Voted to the position by her late husband's captains, Zheng Yi Sao took over the pirate confederation, expanded it, and continued to raid with success. Zheng Yi Sao concentrated on the Canton area, still the major trade hub of that coast, and even managed to defeat three Chinese fleets sent against her. She continued to plunder for another three years, then gained a pardon and spent the rest of her career managing a large and successful smuggling racket fronted by a gambling house. Piracy, meanwhile, continued in the South China Seas throughout the 19th century with such famous figures as Chui-Apoo (d. 1851) and Shap-ng-Tsai (active 1840s to 50s).